We returned last Sunday after a week in Istanbul. The visit wasn’t planned much in advance. A business trip to the city appeared in my wife’s calendar at short notice, and I decided to take a few days off to travel with her.
We traveled light – two half-empty suitcases – but in our minds we carried a ton of images, impressions of Turkey accumulated over a decade of living in Germany (where Turks are the largest immigrant community, a working class engaged largely in manual labour), impressions gleaned from Turkey dispatches in The Economist, from the movies and photographs of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, and the books of a Nobel laureate I shall try not to mention in the forthcoming posts about the city. Some of these impressions were challenged soon after we landed at Ataturk International airport. This was not a conservative muslim country full of women in headscarves. (About ten percent of the women we saw through the week wore them.) This was not a city full of chaotic traffic and streets choked with peddlers, vendors, and customers. (Such scenes existed, yes, and they were charming, but alongside them were areas more modern than parts of affluent Germany.) And the people! Why did we not expect the warmth and curiosity we were met with through the week? Living in Germany and traveling through Europe had plastered our minds with a set of behaviours we expected from locals; Istanbulites surprised us, delighted us, from our first day to the last. So did the cats in the city: never before had I seen so many cats in a week.
My experience, then, was a series of adjustments to the mental picture acquired elsewhere. What I saw in the city and how I saw it was coloured so much by this dimension that my view is perhaps a singular one, a perspective that will alter when I visit the city again. But there is no substitute for the first encounter: it will remain special, always.
Istanbul. A fascinating blend of Asia and Europe, East and West. A city of contrasts. Modernity juxtaposed with tradition. A vibrant culture seeking freedom from political suppression. All well worn themes, all true. But to experience this in person, physically, leaves you with something deep inside that no intellectual understanding of the city can offer. Can this be translated into writing? I do not know. Writing alone cannot achieve this perhaps — I’ll need to rely on photographs, unforgettable new images of Istanbul we carried home along with those (now full) suitcases.